The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 is a comprehensive federal initiative designed to improve the educational performance of all students. Although it is a reauthorization of earlier Elementary and Secondary Education Acts (ESEA), NCLB represents a major expansion of the federal government's role in public education. Rather than merely providing financial assistance to states in their efforts to set standards and improve student achievement, the act explicitly mandates compliance to high standards and sanctions states and schools that fail to meet set criteria (Hardman & Muldur, 2004; Yell & Drasgow, 2005). Figure 2.5 offers a quick introduction to NCLB.

With governance of schools the purview of individual states, the federal government cannot enact laws that mandate uniform policies and procedures. Nonetheless, it influences schools powerfully by invoking other provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Just imagine for a moment how different our schools would be if the Constitution did not protect our rights as citizens. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark case that struck down racial segregation in public schools, the Supreme Court used the 14th Amendment to rule that separation between groups prevented equal educational opportunities. Without such federal intervention, states would have had the option of continuing the practice of "separate but equal." As with IDEA, the 14th Amendment and Brown were significant factors in legal decisions associated with the provision of a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities.

In enacting NCLB, Congress was asserting that states were not doing enough to ensure that all students were performing adequately in school. Many students, once again, were being denied equal opportunities for success. NCLB requires states to reduce the disparity in performance between those groups of students who typically achieve and those students who have had difficulties meeting standards, often due to economic disadvantage, linguistic differences, or disability status.

Major Components of NCLB  NCLB legislation is based on five core principles: (1) strong accountability for results; (2) expanded flexibility and local control of schools; (3) an emphasis on teaching methods based on scientific research; (4) expanded options for parents, particularly those whose children attend low-performing schools; and (5) highly qualified teachers.

Strong Accountability for Results. Among educators, the letters of the alphabet that most closely follow NCLB are AYP. AYP refers to adequate yearly progress, the minimum standard, or benchmark, expected of every student and school (see Figure 2.6). NCLB makes it very clear that states must develop clearly defined goals, or proficiency standards, and then assess if individual students and schools meet these targets. Comparing student performance data to the standards allows parents to know how their child is doing at school. In turn, policymakers and school leaders are able to assess how individual schools and school districts are performing in relation to state standards. In addition to measures of performance for all students across schools and districts, states are required to parse out, or disaggregate, data for specific groups of students, including those who are economically disadvantaged, members of varying culturally and linguistically diverse groups, and students with disabilities. Schools that meet their AYP goals receive positive public acknowledgement of effort. Those that do not meet their goals for two years running are deemed in need of improvement.

What about students with disabilities? Historically, students with disabilities were excluded, both formally and informally, from school and district assessments, perpetuating low expectations throughout their educational careers. Although many have welcomed inclusion, questions remain regarding the appropriateness of including students with severe cognitive disabilities in overall determinations of school effectiveness. To address this concern, NCLB allows school districts and states to exempt 1% of all students from the usual assessments. This 1% represents about 9% of those with disabilities and includes those with the most severe disabilities. Responding to concerns voiced by state and local officials, the U.S. Department of Education allows additional flexibility: an additional 2%, those identified as being in need of modified standards and assessments, can be assessed through alternative measures rather than the usual tests.

Expanded Flexibility and Local Control. NCLB recognizes that local officials have greater sensitivity to the needs of neighborhood schools than do federal administrators in Washington, DC. Consequently, NCLB provides the freedom for school districts to transfer up to 50% of federal funds among a number of programs without the need to obtain prior government approval. The act also allows school districts to consolidate funds from several programs and to enter into flexible state-local partnerships.

Teaching Methods Based on Scientific Research. Monique Green, our featured teacher, was concerned that few students with disabilities in her neighborhood school received specialized accommodations and supports. Policymakers are also concerned that educational research has limited influence on school and classroom practices. Far too often, educators adopt programs and teaching methods based on fads, bandwagons, anecdote, and personal whim, usually with dismal results (Kauffman, 1981; Yell & Drasgow, 2005). With NCLB, federal support is targeted to only those programs that have a proven track record, demonstrating effectiveness through rigorous scientific research.

Expanded Options for Parents. Imagine for a moment that you are a parent of a second-grade student who attends a low-performing school that has had more than its share of discipline issues. You fear for your child's well-being and long-term academic prospects. Under NCLB you have options. First, if the school has not met state goals for two consecutive years, you can choose to have your child transferred to a better-performing school in the district, with transportation provided. Second, if the school fails to meet goals for three consecutive years, your child is eligible for a range of supplemental activities, including free tutoring and after-school instruction.

Highly Qualified Teachers. NCLB requires that all teachers be highly qualified. This has special meaning in NCLB: Highly qualified teachers are defined as being appropriately licensed and having the requisite qualifications in core academic subject areas. For content-area teachers this requirement is fairly straightforward. To continue teaching one must (1) have a college degree; (2) have full state certification or licensure; and (3) demonstrate competency in the areas he or she teaches by passing subject-specific, state-administered tests. The situation is not so clear-cut for special educators; for many, these requirements are confusing, controversial, and potentially burdensome. In addition to developing their special education skills, those who teach at the elementary level must pass a test of subject knowledge and teaching skill in the standard elementary curriculum (e.g., reading, writing, mathematics). Special education teachers at the middle and high school levels must be highly qualified in each of the core subject areas they teach. Because secondary special education teachers often teach multiple subjects to their students, they must demonstrate content knowledge tests in each of those subject areas.

NCLB Outcomes  Have the initial outcomes of NCLB justified all of the effort, reform, confusion, and expense? Although evaluation of the highly qualified teacher provisions will need to wait for the collection of reliable data, we do know that the AYP system has been successful in identifying schools that need improvement (Hall, Weiner, & Carey, 2003). In fact, in many areas of the country, the general public is keenly aware of the magnitude of achievement gaps across their state and in their neighborhood schools. The AYP system has recognized improvements in low-performing schools, demonstrating that schools can and do move off the needs-improvement list. However, some in the disability community are concerned that the individualized, non-normative nature of special education is inconsistent with the use of predetermined, standardized measures of quality, a core element of NCLB. Many students with disabilities do not respond to the general education curriculum on the same schedule as their typically achieving peers or receive the supports and accommodations necessary for success at grade level. Consequently, students with disabilities could become the scapegoats for their schools' failures or blamed unfairly for requiring disproportionately more resources to meet standards (Allbritten, Mainzer, & Ziegler, 2004; Hardman & Nagle, 2004).

Selected Quick Facts: The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act  of 2001

Accountability for Results

  • Creation of state assessments to measure what children know and learn
  • Annual report cards on school performance allowing parents to know about the quality of the children's schools, the qualifications of teachers, and progress in key subjects
  • Statewide performance reports disaggregated according to race, gender, and other relevant criteria to assess closing of the achievement gap

Expanding Options for Parents

  • Parents with children in failing schools allowed to transfer child to a better-performing public or charter school
  • Title I funds available for supplemental educational programs (e.g., tutoring, after-school services, summer school) for children in failing schools
  • Expanded federal support for charter schools

Strengthening Teacher Quality

  • A highly qualified teacher in ever public school classroom by 2005

How Do We Determine AYP?

A major component of NCLB is ensuring that states meet clearly defined goals for teaching all students to predetermined standards. Adequate yearly progress(AYP) involves setting specific benchmarks for the percentage of students who demonstrate proficiency on tests of language arts and math. How is this done? According to the Education Trust (2004), AYP for individual schools is determined through the following five-step process:

  • States determine what students should know and be able to do. Each state adopts or designs standardized tests of language arts and math and then sets proficiency scores for students in grades three through eight.
  • A starting point is calculated. Because NCLB recognizes that proficiency for all students will take time, states are to set baseline levels of performance in reading and math that are the greater of the following two calculations: the percentage of students proficient in the lowest-performing group of students in the state or the percentage proficient at the 20th percentile of student enrollment in the state.
  • Specific targets of yearly progress are set for all groups of students. Using the baseline data, yearly targets reflecting the goals of increasing proficiency rates are set for all groups of students. Targeted increases must be in equal increments, culminating in 100% in 2014.
  • Measure the performance of students and schools. There are two ways to determine if a school has met its yearly AYP. Regular AYP is achieved if the school as a whole and the subgroups within the school meet or exceed the specific targets described in Step 3. However, if the school doesn't meet these goals, it is still possible for a school to meet AYP by making significant year-to-year progress. "Safe Harbor" AYP allows a school to meet standards if the percent of students who are not proficient decreases by 10% from the previous year.
  • Steps are taken to help students in schools not making AYP. If, after two years, a school does not make AYP, parents are given the opportunity to transfer students to a higher-performing school. If the school fails in the next year, tutoring and supplemental educational services are available to students. After four years of failing to meet AYP, the school has a choice of corrective actions, including replacement of staff, new curricula, and the imposition of an extended school year. If this doesn't work, the school is required to develop and implement an alternative governance plan.